Sochi’s springlike weather puts damper on conditions for Olympic athletes


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GWEN IFILL: Time now for an update from Sochi, where it’s not just the winners and the losers, but the conditions themselves, that are becoming a part of the story.

I caught up earlier today with sportswriter Christine Brennan, who’s covering the Olympics for USA Today and ABC News.

Chris Brennan from Sochi, thanks again for joining us.

First, a warning for our audience. We have some spoilers coming up.

But I can’t help by starting by talking about this great competition in women’s hockey between the U.S. and Canada.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN, USA Today: That’s right, Gwen. It was a great game. Canada won this round. Canada won 3-2 over the United States. They’re bitter rivals. They all know each other, the two best teams in the world.

And it really is, to me, the best rivalry and the best competition going, for the U.S. anyway, is this great, great rivalry and battle between these two countries. And the reality is, though, they’re the two best teams. They have won all of the gold medals in Olympic competition dating back to 1998 in Nagano, when women’s ice hockey did start in the Olympics.

And so I think they will be seeing each other again. And my guest is they will be seeing each other again for the gold medal in about a week. And it’s terrific and it’s a great step forward for women’s sports, because this is not the way it looked when they started in ’98 or even moving on to 2002.

This is a quick, fast, crisp game. They look terrific out there. And I think women’s sports took a big step forward as Canada did beat the U.S. today.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about women’s ski jumping, another big deal.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Well, that’s right.

And I think the Olympic Games gives us this, Gwen, in many ways because this is the Super Bowl for women’s sports. The men have the Super Bowl. The men have the World Series. They have the NBA finals. For most women, the best you can do is the Olympic Games.

Should be no surprise then that we do see the best female athletes at the Olympic Games, whether it’s women’s soccer, women’s swimming, gymnastics in the Summer Games, and here at the Winter Games, of course, many sports, a new sport, this time around, women’s ski jumping.

It took them a while. They had to sue the Vancouver organizing committee four years ago. In many ways, these women are the Johnny Appleseeds of the sport. A woman named Lindsey Van who — not Lindsey Vonn, Lindsey Van — who was competing has been one of — really the face of this pioneering effort.

Now, unfortunately for the United States, none of the women, the three women from America won medals. But the victory was in participation, the fact that they actually got on that hill and jumped off for the first time ever. It was really a historic moment. I was thrilled to be there as a journalist. And I think it certainly portends great things going forward for women’s ski jumping.

GWEN IFILL: From a casual viewer’s point of view, the biggest surprise so far in the Olympics seems to be the premature flame-out of snowboarder Shaun White.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Oh, without a doubt, the flying tomato, although he’s no longer the flying tomato, because he cut his hair, 27 years old.

Folks might remember him of course from 2006. He won the gold and in 2010 he won the gold there. Here he was again, the gold medal favorite, had a bad run. He fell twice and he just couldn’t come back in his final run. That great story of coming back at the very end, that wasn’t to be for Shaun White. Now, Shaun White is much more than just an athlete, Gwen.

He is a brand. And I think that may be part of the issue for him. He is still excellent. He’s got so many things going on. He has got a band. He owns his own course. He has business ventures galore. And I think what we’re seeing is very much like we see with Tiger Woods or even Michael Phelps.

When an athlete starts to get distracted, when they have so many other things going, it’s great for them as they move into adulthood, but it might not be so great for the on-the-field performance. And that’s what happened with Shaun White.

GWEN IFILL: Chris, in the lead-up to these Olympics, there was a lot of talk about security and a lot of talk about potential protests. Have any of these things materialized into being a big drag on these Games?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: I think the biggest upset here by far is that there has been no big news.

If you think about it, thinking, going back six months ago, three months ago, even a few weeks ago, the thought of going to Sochi, my goodness, family and friends, for me, you and I have talked about, really, you’re going to go? And, of course, as a journalist, yes, of course you’re going.

But the thought that there would be nothing happening at the opening ceremonies except a snowflake malfunction, that that would be the big news, that’s just stunning. And I think it’s important to kind of — what are we now, five, six days into the Games, seven days, to really step back and say they’re going well.

And the concerns about security, knock on wood, have not come to the fore. And things are — seem to be moving along just fine. Now, having said that, you never know. The protest issue, especially over Putin’s anti-gay propaganda law, there have been a few protests in Moscow and here. We don’t see those, being in the secure zone.

But the interesting thing to me is several American athletes past and present who are speaking out against the anti-gay law when they hit Russian soil, which I think is a pretty dramatic move and a very courageous move, the figure skater Ashley Wagner continuing to talk about her anger with the law and human rights and equal rights. Brian Boitano and Caitlin Cahow were two members of the U.S. delegation sent by President Obama who are openly gay.

They got here and immediately spoke out against the law. So, we are seeing these profiles in courage from some athletes, Ashley Wagner currently participating, and two former Olympians. And I think that is a very newsworthy thing to discuss.

GWEN IFILL: Finally, Chris, we’re bracing for a big storm here on the East Coast. It seems like it’s a lot warmer in Sochi than here. What is going on?  

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Absolutely, 60 degrees today. It was like a spring day, beautiful walking to the women’s ice hockey, Gwen.

But there’s a very serious part of this. It’s great weather, much different than you would expect for a Winter Olympics, except really the last few Olympics have had this moderate, temperate climate. Vancouver, we had these issues with snowboarding. The consistency of the snow, we saw that again here, the snowboarders complaining about the quality of the snow.

I think the reality is, as long as the International Olympic Committee picks these temperate, moderate climates, these cities to host the Games, you’re going to get these issues. And the shame of it is, you have got the athletes at the peak of their training. This is the pinnacle of their careers. And then to not have great conditions, that is a shame.

But that’s the International Olympic Committee going for different climates. And I think it’s going to continue.

GWEN IFILL: OK. Christine Brennan of USA Today, thanks again for joining us.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Gwen, my pleasure. Thanks very much.

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